Life's a Picnic: The Great Outdoors and Creativity

Blog by RJ Thomson | 05 May 2009
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There is a clear theme of getting away from it all in this month's content. Several of the artists we interview have had their gaiters on, or at least been out of town. Hyper-talented New York psychedelicists Grizzly Bear and thoughtful rocker Jason Lytle (ex of Grandaddy), both describe the benefits to their work of having taken time out from the hustle and bustle. And, with refreshing openness for an international star, Michelle Yeoh reveals how she was awed and inspired by the experience of filming Far North in the arctic.

Another part of this theme is altogether daft, in that, when we all found out that Ruth was planning a very useful 'where to picnic' feature this issue, we figured we'd try to work the idea of picnics into our editorials if possible.

Now, picnics are a tricky subject. When Ruth asked me for my top tip, I was reluctant to give it precisely because I didn't want everyone to know about it. Mean-spirited? Maybe a bit. But part of the whole fun of the picnic is the getting away from it all (it all = other people), and enjoying the beauty of nature (enjoying the beauty = usually, hitting on the person you're with, whether they're yours already or the object of woo). So it's necessarily quite a secretive pursuit. Ironic in a way that we go into the 'great outdoors', partly, to hide.

This sense of escape is very much backed up by the musicians we speak to on this topic. Lytle in particular speaks about his appreciation for the open-spaces of Montana, as a way to escape the more courtly machinations of the music industry, and as a way to find the appropriate headspace for composition (though many outdoors purists, myself included, will balk at the idea of strolling around to the strains of the try-hard Kaiser Chiefs – though who are we to question what works?). And while Grizzly Bear speak more about the out-of-town recording spaces they've used, than full retreat, their brilliant new album Veckatimest was very much inspired by the isolation and beauty of Cape Cod, and is in fact named after an uninhabited island there.

There is of course a strong tradition of seeking the wild in American culture. Early manifestations can be found in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (who sat by a wide pond to compose the brilliant Walden), Jack London (whose influential adventure stories included The Call of the Wild), and even Herman Melville (who was much more obsessed with the sea, but nevertheless developed a powerful impression of the unique quality of spiritual adventure to be found out-the-house).

From here the connection to popular culture is most strongly made with the Beat generation writers, and in particular Jack Kerouac (from the gung-ho spirit of On the Road to the mountaintop nirvana-seeking of The Dharma Bums and the personal-crisis-in-the-woods of Big Sur, the outdoors is a constant presence in Kerouac's psyche). Famously, Kerouac spent weeks of a long summer season, alone in a tower in the woods (on ‘Desolation Peak’ of all places!), looking out for forest fires and taking time.

From this lonely grandeur I’d like to bring you back to the trickiness of picnics. Because, let's be honest, they're never going to be cool (like Kerouac undoubtedly was; Thoreau too, in his way).

Cool is easily spotted. It's in remaining calm under pressure (the easy-going return to the big-stage for Glasgow's The Vaselines); making the difficult look easy (Huntleys and Palmers Audio Club having fun while consistently booking unique acts for their world-class micro club night); and, if we're honest, in the narcotic near-desperation of a brilliantly talented creator (Chilean author Roberto Bolano).

One of the problems with picnics is they're inherently healthy. You eat, you get fresh air, you look after yourself. None of which is imbued with much of the devil-may-care confidence of cool.

But for me, the main reason they're never going to seem cool or edgy is because they're so tied to the idea of a day out. Or, more abstractedly, of day. You could have a picnic at nighttime, but it'd still feel like day. And day is the centre, the conscious, the light. You need day like oxygen; and you can't overdose. There’s no excess of day.

But is it really so very wholesome? See, if you acknowledge that there's a basic human need served by hiding, in a wide open space, in the daytime, you've got to admit that's at least a little kooky. Just maybe, picnics are where we bare our souls.